Some of my mistakes

Torsten Uhlmann

Sat, 19 May 2007

Photo by Torsten Uhlmann

Now, people love to write about success. Me too. But I guess it is more valuable to write about failure. Or mistakes one makes. The process of making mistakes, recognizing them and learning not to repeat them is probably one of the most important in a person’s life. And so it is for a company. A while ago I enjoyed reading Eric Sink’s article ”Make more mistakes”. It speaks about the importance of making mistakes and learning from them. Now while I think everyone makes them, only few people decide to write about their failures. It just doesn’t feel as good as telling the world about your million dollar success… Since I have no million dollar success to report about I decided to share some of the mistakes I made. In the hope to help you avoid the same traps.img_0193.jpg It all began when I started my company back in 2005. I started solo in April and relatively quickly decided to employ people. It’s surely not wrong to employ someone- if there is a reason for. It all has to do with insecurity and lack of entrepreneural knowledge. And because I think I’m not too special in that aspect I suspect that there are others out there with the same problems which I faced. First, there is vision. If you start a company, may it be solo or with people, you need to have a vision. You need to know where you wanna go to, what your goals are, your ethics, your philosophy. Of course that vision will change and adapt over time. But if you start without you’ll end up running circles and getting nowhere. It is very important that you as the leader of the company carry that vision in your heart. My vision was to have a company. I’m a software professional, a geek. I want to write great software. I want to do it the way I see fit. But my vision was not very deep rooted. I kind of took a short cut. I thought “Well, I’ll employ great people and provide a place for them to be creative. I just add their abilities and their visions to mine. So we end up with a great, unique powerful vision.” It won’t work! If you as the leader can not provide the guidlines of your company you’ll end up having a bunch of talented people that still don’t fit in. Because you have not defined where you want them to fit in. If you as the leader do not have the vision how do you know who’s good for your job and who’s not. So after I started solo someone wanted me to create a website for them. I was pretty busy developing Net-Herald, our monitoring application. But I knew some friend of mine who is very creative and has done websites before. Since he was looking for a job at that time I offered him a place in my company and thought “Well, maybe we can position ourself within this market. He is also a PC hardware expert, so maybe we can sell hardware to our clients, too.” So I employed him in August 2005. In November 2005 we needed to develop a brochure for Net-Herald (did I say it, that’s our monitoring application). There was another friend moving up to our area who studied media design. So I thought “Maybe we can position ourself in that market, too. He is very creative. There surely are many great synergy effects. He can write the documentation for Net-Herald (our …), he can concept the texts on our website, etc.” Now we created a few websites since then. And he did a great job designing that brochure. And we had some synergy effects. But (that’s a huge, underlined, blinking red BUT)- these are no reasons for employing people! What were the reasons I did it in the first place:

  • They where friends and I wanted to have them a job. And I thought it might be great to have friends around.
  • I didn’t have a vision my own! I was just looking for opportunities. We thought: We are very good at our job. We can do a lot of things.

Now, it’s a special thing to have friends work for you. Beware! If the friendship came before the employment relationship then it can simply be that your friends expect you to handle them nicely. Never work late. Never work on Saturday’s. And you- you don’t want to kill the friendship. So you end up taking part of there work on your shoulder. Concerning the second point: Of course, you can do a lot of things. But a lot of them are not in the center of your heart and they will be done mediocre. There is only a small subset of things that I can do really good. For instance we tried to sell Linux small business servers- with Open Exchange, Hylafax and all that kind of stuff. Why? because I had someone who can assemble the hardware and I needed work for him. Or we tried to sell VoIP contracts for the same reason. Here is a big thing I learned: Do not employ someone and then seek work for him. Rather employ someone for the work you have that you can’t get done on your own. If you are not an expert in a field than it’s no fun to go in there because there are a lot of people who are better. Stay in your field of expertise, grow there, learn more. Find people who will work for you in your field of expertise! Again, I made those mistakes because I had no clear vision! And actually, we are still about to define it! It is a process to find your identity. It takes time to grow into being a business. But if I had stayed on my own I would have been faster in finding the center of my venture. I want o develop software. I don’t mind changing the language or the domain I develop software for. But it’s about software. I’ve done a lot of database backed applications in Java- so that defines my current field of expertise. I’m willing to learn more and to move to different fields- but it will always be about software. And that’s large enough :) I’m looking for product opportunities within this field. Because this is what I know best and where I have the most expertise. I won’t try and do something alien to me. It’s not fun and the result won’t be great. Another thing that kept me alive over the years was that I didn’t threw away that contacts I had with my former employer. So after a while I got a contract from him as a freelancer. That consulting business brought the money to feed me and my 2 employees. But that’s not the purpose of having employees. They are supposed to make mony for you, aren’t they? They are supposed to work on your field of expertise and help you grow a company.

So after more then a year I laid off one of my employees which relieved me a great deal from having to care for three. The other one is doing a great job in supporting our Net-Herald and other customers and maintaining our and our client’s websites.


Moral: I find the most important lesson here is the importance of a vision. A vision that is unique to you, not just borrowed from someone else. A vision that will sustain you in rough times. I vision that actually defines your identity and the work you want to do. There is no short cut in finding a vision. It takes time. But it’s worth it. Dear reader, I’d love to receive feedback from you. Write about your experiences… In the hope of being of value to those brave entrepreneurs out there.